A walk through Florissant’s history
Key citizens from the community’s past honored with plaques placed throughout the city’s Old Town district
By Nicholas Elmes
It is not hard to find history in Florissant – all you have to do is take a stroll down St. Francis Street to learn something about the men and women who have contributed to the city over the past 241 years.
That is because about 15 years ago a group of citizens and local historians decided to honor key citizens from the community’s past with plaques placed throughout the city’s Old Town district, an effort that has now become known as the Walk Through History.
“People here, their roots run deep,” said Florissant Mayor Tom Schneider. “We have people who have been here for five generations. I think that by recognizing some of the key people from our history by putting it into a permanent plaque that it will inspire good citizenship from people of all ages by reflecting on those who went above and beyond.”
The program was the brainchild of local historian Rosemary Davidson, who is now recognized with her own plaque, and former Mayor Robert Lowery.
“They started out with some of the city’s founding fathers like Commandant Francois Dunegant dit Borosier who was appointed to be the head of the civil and military government of the village of what was then called St. Ferdinand,” said Schneider. “He was the first person who was honored in the Walk Through History. Another of the early ones was Mayor Charles Castello.”
Castello was served as mayor in the 1800s, being elected to the office 27 times and playing a key role in bringing the West End Narrow Gauge Railroad to Florissant.
“We have also honored a number of other mayors who made significant contributions to the progress of the community throughout the community for the past 200 years,” said Schneider, noting that the Walk Through History also honors a variety of businessmen and notable residents from the community. “There is John Mullanphy who was a very wealthy merchant and commodity trader back in the 1800s and gave a lot of his wealth to St. Ferdinand Parish at the time.
“We also honored Johnny Londoff, Sr. who was started a very successful car dealership,” said Schneider. “He was a big booster of the Variety Club which raised money for local charities back in the day and brought people like the Rat Pack to the town. We also have the first woman plumber, Charlotte Ballard, in the state of Missouri who had her own plumbing company here.”
In total, the Walk Through History currently boasts 26 plaques to key historical figures from the area, but new plaques are added every year.
“We pick who we will honor through a collaboration between local historians,” said Schneider. “I also get recommendations from families and people who have been around for a while, families that have been here for centuries.”
Each plaque is unveiled with a special ceremony during the spring and summer at Florissant’s Wednesday Night Out or, if the honoree was heavily involved in the local Rotary Club, in collaboration with a Rotary Club lunch.
Schneider said this year the city had a unique list of people to honor ranging from historian Gretchen Crank to former president Thomas Jefferson.
“Under his presidency, they acquired the Louisiana Purchase which brought Missouri into the United States,” said Schneider. “We will be putting his plaque at the corner of St. Francis Street and Jefferson Street.”
Schneider said the Walk Through History is a great way of sharing the city’s history with visitors to big events like the Valley of Flowers, the Veteran’s Day Parade, the annual Fall Festival.
“We have 10,000 people walking up and down the street then,” he said. “They get to see a lot of people who have made a significant contribution to the community.”
But the walk is also important for the city’s residents, according to Schneider who said he frequently runs into people who have learned something they did not know from the plaques
“We just put in a plaque for Jay Russell, and some people did not know that he was in the state legislature for 28 years,” said Schneider. “They just thought of him as a tavern owner and for his pizza restaurant.”
He said that the Walk Through History was a way to make sure that the people who really made a difference were not lost to history.
“You might wonder why a street or a building is named for a certain person,” he said. “Maybe people who lived in that lifetime know, but then decades later they don’t know.”
Schneider said that one of the hardest parts of managing the Walk Through History program was figuring out exactly what to put on each plaque.
“Every plaque has to be 75 words so you have to condense someone’s life into just 75 words,” he said. “It is amazing how profound you can be when you have to be concise. You really have to pick out the important things.”
Schneider said his favorite plaques were the ones honoring Saint Rose Philippine Duchesne and Father Pierre-Jean De Smet.
“That was a pretty special friendship that I mention all the time,” said Schneider. “St. Philippine inspired him and he inspired her. There was a great friendship between the two of them. He loved Florissant because it had the quality of hospitality.”
That is a quality that has defined the community for centuries, and all you have to do to learn about it take a stroll down St. Francis Street.